STEEL & PLASTIC

My good friend Derald had a voucher for a steelhead guided trip that he needed to cash out before it lapsed. He texted the details and we headed to one of the many rivers in WA with a Native American name, the Wynoochee, a Chehalis word for “shifting”. The nickname “Nooch” is generally said with affection by local anglers because of the population of wild chrome. It offers summer and winter steelhead, coho, and cutthroats at different times of year.

Crisp blue skies and low temperatures made every layer under my shell worth it. We met at the checkpoint given in the guide service email, and waited for his truck and trailer to come around the bend.

Our guide was pretty typical for the PNW, good on the sticks, not chatty or warm, did other blue-collar work during the off-season, and seemed to be just barely willing to be there. His outfitter came highly recommended so we navigated his boat-side manner while learning a bit about the river, the approach for the day, and what steelhead life was like. The guide carried with him a key that opened up a logging road gate that supposedly only a small handful of people had access to.

Unsurprisingly, it was going to be a day of hurling WA specials (egg patterns tied above a big hook) through the runs and riffles with depth changes. Our stoic sherpa was committed to this tactic, as evidenced by a glance inside his truck.

We each stuck a couple, which is all you can ask for. Due to the generations of abuse and mismanagement, wild ones get put back with haste (we never had one at hand longer than a few seconds, I actually enjoyed the challenge of getting them released as fast as possible) and farmed ones get bonked. The hatchery brats are typically done by mid-January so we saw richly colored fish that went back in to spawn and carry their genes forward. To recognize wild vs farmed, the adipose fin is the best tell once you net the fish, but the color saturation tipped me off each time before I ever got a look at the fins.

Derald got the fish of the day, a huge male with massive jaws. It ran upstream so fast the guide prompted us to exit the driftboat on a gravel siland and hoof it upriver. I honestly thought we were too late but it stayed on, and we snapped pictures quickly before returning him to his route.

I’d love to try other methods next time I make it to the southern OP. I will say that all the stories you hear about steelhead running from you and the feeling of being attached to a rocket are true. The power is unlike anything I’ve touched. The sheer amount of water they could cover in three seconds was so unbelievable I found myself laughing out loud at the incredulity.

We helped the guide haul out his drift-boat and thanked him for the day. The heater in the car stung our shins and feet at first and then melted into awakening our feet and legs. A stop in an Olympian brewery replaced the calories from the day, and all in all, I was grateful for time with the ocean-run monsters returning to fight back against their plight and dwindling numbers.

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